Secrets of the San Fernando Valley: El Pollo Sonora

pollosonora1.jpg

My wife’s Sonoran heritage was something of an anomaly in the Bay Area, but in Los Angeles her Northern Mexican culture seems to be everywhere. You’ve got Sonoratown in DTLA that is absolutely thriving (and Jen is the nicest person ever, so definitely make the effort to go there). El Cholo on Western, an LA institution since 1923, features an absolutely decadent Sonoran-style tortilla on its menu. The LA Times just ran a feature on dining in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora where my mother-in-law is from. And you can even find Sonoran-style hotdogs at trucks all over the city. Even though we’re getting used to the awesome ubiquity of Sonoran culture in our new setting, it’s still incredibly exciting to find another outpost. Thus, when I was driving home from work this past week, taking a shortcut down Vanowen through Van Nuys, I pulled over once I saw the words “El Pollo Sonora” plastered on a strip mall marquee. If the pollo (chicken) was being made by a family from Sonora, I knew it was probably going to be darn good.

IMG_2829.jpg

Simplicity is a wonderful thing when it’s done well, and there’s nothing more exciting for me than seeing a restaurant focus on a specialty. One thing about Sonora: it’s known for its beef, not necessarily for its chicken, so I was stoked to see that tri-tip was the other option of the menu. Pollo Sonora is run by the Monrreal family, who purchased the restaurant almost five years ago from the previous owner who specialized in chicken. Clearly not wanting to shake things up with the local clientele, they kept the focus on chicken. But with Sammy Monrreal now running the kitchen, along with his son Leo and his daughter Vanessa at the counter, beef has been added to the agenda. It’s quite simple to order: you choose chicken or tri-tip; plate, taco, or burrito; then you choose your sides. Let’s start with the chicken.

IMG_2832.jpg

We try to eat somewhat healthy during the week, and in a pinch I’ll often stop by El Pollo Loco and grab a few breasts to chop up with a salad or eat with tortillas. That won’t be happening anymore, now that I’ve found Pollo Sonora. Moist, succulent, and roasted to perfection, the chicken here is a huge step up. I’ve ordered it three times to-go and it’s been top notch each time.

If you order the plate you get rice, pinto beans, salsa, a grilled jalapeño, and tortillas of your choosing. Seeing that it’s Sonoran-inspired food, I’m always going to opt for the Sonoran flour. The flour tortillas are thick and hearty, just what you need for your meal. Now let’s talk about the steak.

IMG_2831.jpg

The beauty of the tri-tip plate option is that it’s really just a classic BBQ dish with Mexican salsas and sides. The beef is served grilled and sliced along with the same sides as the chicken. What I love is the versatility. If I feel like popping a bottle of Bordeaux, or red wine in general, I can grab a beef plate from Pollo Sonora and be good to go. But if I feel like keeping it classically Mexican, I can put a few slices in my flour tortilla, pour on the salsa, and crack open a cold Modelo. I’ve had the beef three times and it’s aways choice, never fatty or chewy, flavorful and cooked medium.

I could probably eat here every day for the next two months and never get tired of it. There’s no alcohol license at Pollo Sonora, so if you want to drink with your dinner just order to-go. Vanessa and the gang are super nice, very helpful, and fun to chat with, so don’t worry about calling ahead. Dinner for two is less than twenty bucks.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

-David Driscoll

The Great Vodkas of Poland

Horse traders drink Polish vodka at Skaryszew horse fair. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

Horse traders drink Polish vodka at Skaryszew horse fair. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

The great wines of France.

The great whiskies of Scotland.

The great Bourbons of Kentucky.

And, yes, the great vodkas of Poland. Russia, too. But we have to start with Poland.

Think about it: you can grow Cabernet Sauvignon in many places, but it seems to taste best from Bordeaux.

You can malt barley, ferment it, and distill it just about anywhere, but it seems to taste best from Scotland.

You can put grain whiskey into new charred oak and mature it wherever you want, but it seems to taste best from Kentucky.

What do all of those places have in common? They’ve been making alcohol for a very, very long time and each has become the standard of quality for the product they specialize in.

Now let’s talk about Poland.

I’ve consumed a lot of vodka in my life, from California, to Sweden, to Iceland, and beyond. In my humble opinion, the very best vodkas in the world are Polish. There any many who consider Russia to be the motherland of vodka distillation, but vodka as we know it has been produced in Poland for more than 600 years and it's believed that vodka originated there. Just because vodka likely originated in Poland, doesn’t mean that it can never be improved upon. It’s just to say that, 600 years later, I personally haven’t tasted any improvements. As is the case with the other great alcoholic beverages of the world, Polish vodka is the result of time-tested know-how. It is the standard for others to follow.

Why is Polish vodka so good? Because it’s often clean, vibrant, and textural on the palate, balanced in its mouthfeel, and of a distinctive character. Because vodka is such a neutral spirit, I’ve always used bottled mineral water versus tap water as a comparison when helping consumers. Most of us can taste the difference between Evian and the kitchen sink, even if we can’t necessarily describe it. Yet, it’s for that reason that writers and “cultivated” drinkers in the age of critical flavor analysis dismiss vodka as pedestrian; an industrial spirit not worthy of any serious attention (not unlike professors who ignore any topic that won’t net them a publishing deal). But to ignore vodka is to completely discount a drinking culture that dates back centuries and includes hundreds of millions of participants. As Keifer Sutherland says in The Lost Boys: “You don’t like rice? How could a billion Chinese people be wrong?”

Polish vodka is in turn Polish history. The world's first written mention of the drink and of the word "vodka" was in 1405 from Akta Grodzkie in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland. There is evidence of large-scale distillation in Poland by the end of the 1500s. It wasn't anything modern or advanced like we have today, but it was definitely happening and rye was the grain of choice. In his book A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693, Jakub Kazimierz Haur gave detailed recipes for making vodka from rye. The debate is still on in some circles whether Poland is truly the motherland, as legend has it that a monk named Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin made a recipe of the first Russian vodka in the early 1400s. I’m not getting involved. I’m just here to tell you what I know about Poland.

IMG_2838.jpg

At Polmos Zyrardów distillery, west of Warsaw, they've been producing vodka since 1910 using only Dankowskie Zlote, a strain of rye that has been cultivated and farmed for centuries within the soil. Polmos Zyrardów is where Belvedere vodka is made today and it is distilled only from this locally sourced grain. Belvedere is not only a great example of fine Polish vodka, it’s also a brand taking serious steps to further distinguish the category by deconstructing its most important elements. In 2018, the company released two of the coolest, most beautiful vodkas I’ve ever tasted: the Lake Bartezek and Smogóry Forest single estate editions, showcasing the differences between vodkas made with rye from specific regions.

Personally, I think the idea of terroir in vodka is a tricky one, namely because you can’t easily link specific flavors in the glass to specific characteristics in the Polish earth. It’s not like Chablis, where you match its distinct oyster shell character to the chalky, limestone-rich Chablisiènne soil. At a premium price, Belvedere may have overestimated the interest of their core clientele in serious vodka geekery, but I certainly appreciate it. More important than any perceptible terroir—in my opinion—is that both vodkas are distinctively different from one another and, perhaps most important, both are simply immaculate. What that says to me as a drinker is: you can make vodka from rye in this part of Poland, or in that part of Poland, and it’s going to taste incredible. It’s clear from tasting both editions that there’s something special about Polish grains. There’s something special about Polish water. There’s something special about Polish vodka—period.

What makes Polish vodka so special? It could be a commitment to standards, or maybe the belief that vodka is more than simply taking high-proof grain spirit and rectifying it until it’s neutral. Vodka is serious business in Poland, unlike in America where it’s simply tolerated as a necessary cash grab. Whereas many gin distilleries I've visited purchase their neutral grain spirit from the general market, often knowing little about its origin, most Polish vodka producers work closely with both the farmers and the agricultural distilleries from which they contract. The quality of the grains is important both to the distillation process and the resulting flavor, even if the resulting spirit is neutral in character. As an example, Dankowskie winter rye has been cultivated for over 100 years and only grown in the Mazovian plains of western Poland. This grain is cherished for its usually high starch content (around 65% vs. the standard 50-55% for generic rye) which makes it perfect for distillation.

Winter rye is any breed of rye planted in the fall to provide ground cover for the winter. It actually grows during any warmer days of the winter, when sunlight temporarily brings the plant to above freezing, even while there is still snow on the ground. It’s a rye that is climatically perfect for the colder parts of Poland and eastern Ukraine, thereby giving the region a speciality in terms of quality grain. The skill in producing quality Polish vodka lies in the distiller’s ability to draw out the positive characteristics of that grain. In terms of the raw material hierarchy, rye tops the list due to its comparative scarcity when compared to other grains. It also makes the most elegant and ethereal ryes, in my opinion, but we’ll talk about potatoes and other grains in an upcoming post.

If a grain is being distilled until it is technically neutral in flavor, then the water used to proof down the spirit will play a big role in the ultimate purity of that flavor. Most Polish distilleries have their own underground wells that are often protected and used solely for the purpose of distillation and dilution. As the team at Belvedere once told me:

Water represents 60% of a bottle of Belvedere, the quality and consistency must be assured. This is why the land we draw the water from is owned and protected and the water source itself is not mechanically aided. This ensures the water delivered to the distillery in an entirely closed, acid resistant stainless steel pipes is as unadulterated as possible. A premium water source is only part of the equation when it comes to producing a premium spirit, particularly for vodka. A water that is pure, soft and unadulterated that is used to emphasize a premium distillate suggests that the spirit in question is something worth emphasizing.

Believe it or not, Polish vodka is actually one of the most regulated types of spirit in existence. All of the base materials—either rye, wheat, or potatoes—must be Polish in origin, the water must come from Poland, and the product must be distilled in Poland. European law also recognizes Polish vodka as having its own geographical appellation, further stating that it may not have further additives besides water (this does not count for "flavored" vodka, of course, which is its own category).

So, yes, there’s something about Polish vodka that stands out from the pack. We’ll dig more into that later on.

-David Driscoll

The Best Scottish Distillery You've Never Heard Of

glengylefront.jpg

There are few secrets left in the whisky world these days, with social media driving awareness of even the most micro of distillates and a relentless thirst for new blood among consumers. Despite what our speakeasy culture may convey, there are no more underground brands or clandestine gems being guarded by insiders in-the-know. It’s somewhat sad, as hidden knowledge is always an exciting discovery, but we’re living in the age of information. The internet has exposed every dark corner of our planet. What’s worth searching out has been discovered, and what was once lost has already been found. Hoping to capitalize on our inherent desire to be special, many brands still attempt to “unearth” something profound from the vault, but there’s little truth to those gimmicks. The market has never been more crowded with one-of-a-kind opportunities as it is today.

That being said, with so many different brands available and retail shelf space expanding like a supernova ready to burst, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you. But that’s exactly where you’ll find the real treasures, buried in between the 700+ whiskies at your local retailer, unassuming and completely overlooked. Today’s modern secrets are hiding in plain sight, tucked in between the fifty different Johnnie Walker variations, and the rainbow of Macallans. They are covert only because they’ve gone unnoticed, inconspicuous by their lack of bravado, but they’re visible to those who know where to look.

Glengyle is one of those secrets.

Producing a rich, unctuous, and creamy style of whisky, its malts are well worth seeking out for those on the hunt. You just need a few key pieces of information. For example, don’t look for the name Glengyle. Look for Kilkerran.

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

The Glengyle Distillery in Campbeltown, a tiny facility that only operates for three months a year, makes a very, very small quantity of single malt known as Kilkerran, a brand that few will recognize. Along with Springbank and Glen Scotia, Glengyle is one of three distilleries left in the area, still recognized as one of Scotland’s five main whisky regions along with the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, and Islay/Islands. That being said, it’s only because of Glengyle that Campbeltown retains its status as one of Scotland’s distinctive malt whiskies. In the late nineties, with only two remaining distilleries, the Scotch Whisky Association thought it was time to retire the regional distinction of Campbeltown, much to the protest of its remaining producers. After pointing out that the Lowlands only had three working distilleries, the SWA responded with an ultimatum: either open a third distillery in Campbeltown, or lose the classification.

So they did.

In November of 2000, 75 years after its closing, Headley Wright announced that he was reopening the Glengyle Distillery in downtown Campbeltown, right next door to his other iconic distillery: Springbank. Wright is the eccentric chairman of J&A Mitchell and Co Ltd, and the great-great nephew of William Mitchell, the original founder of Glengyle, so it made sense to keep the family lineage alive along with the Campbeltown distinction. It also made sense from a practical stance. Despite its dormancy, Glengyle’s campus had remained in relatively constant use over the years. In the 1920s the facility was rented out to Campbeltown Miniature Rifle Club, and the buildings were later used a depot and sales office for an agricultural company, therefore it remained the best preserved of all the former Campbeltown distilleries. All it needed was a little love and some new equipment.

kilkerranwarehouse.jpg

You can visit the Glengyle website for the full story of the rebuild, along with videos that document the process. It’s an incredible story. What’s important to know today is that you can easily purchase a bottle of the delicious 12 year old Kilkerran, distilled and matured at Glengyle in Campbeltown, from most specialty retailers. You don’t need a secret password, or a special code word. While many of the new distilleries we read about are busy allocating their young creations, Glengyle has been silently churning away in the background, preparing for this moment. With a tiny marketing budget, little to no social media, and a reliance upon word-of-mouth fanfare, Kilkerran has remained completely under the radar of most drinkers. Considering that Glengyle only runs for three months out of the year, that’s probably for the best. There isn’t much to go around, and the team at Kilkerran isn’t looking to expand. It’s meant to be small, insider’s brand; one that provides bang for the buck and expands on the classic Campbeltown profile.

What is the Campbeltown whisky style? A heavy, oily, mouth-coating malt that encompasses a little bit of everything. Personally, it’s my favorite style of Scottish single malt because I like creamy, full-bodied malts, but in order to understand how it came about it’s good to know a little more about Scotch whisky history.

Despite its quaint stature today and working class appearance, Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of Scotland, home to 22 thriving distilleries at the end of the 18th century. Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula, which juts out to the south, was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West. The city of Campbeltown was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region, so they planted barley. That barley would ultimately get distilled into Scotch whisky. 

At the end of the 17th century, the numerous distilleries in Campbeltown were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK. At one point, the demand was so high they were forced to import barley from the Baltic just to keep up. Yet, with the rise of blended whisky and the expansion of the industry, the bottom fell out. The heavy and oily whiskies of Campbeltown were ultimately passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style, and the region fell into decline. Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. played a role. The distilleries still selling directly to Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky. The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown, a region that had long been associated with quality.

That’s how Campbeltown went from 22 distilleries to only two, and almost lost its regional designation entirely.

kilkerrans.jpg

One thing you can always count on with any malt in the Mitchell’s portfolio, however, is supreme Campbeltown quality. Throughout all the tough times and the hard years, Springbank distillery survived because of its reputation as one of Scotland’s iconic whiskies, and that same commitment to excellence is palpable in the Kilkerran malts. Having recently revisited the 12 year old edition, I was taken aback by how salty and oily it was. It is a thick and lip-smacking whisky, utterly delicious and distinctive; everything I want from my Scottish malt. If you had to define the Scottish regional styles, Campbeltown would be the kitchen sink. It incorporates many of the best aspects of the other four regions and combines them into the perfect dram. There’s no smoke in the Kilkerran 12 year, but you can always go for the cask strength, heavily peated edition if you want that punch. Fat, resinous, and sooty, it’s nothing like an Islay whisky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Rather than the bright citrus and iodine you’d find in Laphroaig, the Kilkerran is more like a peat bog covered in butterscotch with a finish that oozes its way across your palate at a snail’s pace. It’s more earth than smoke.

With the popularity of Springbank and its other iconic labels, Longrow and Hazelburn, it’s easy to overlook what’s been happening right next-door at Glengyle: the resurrection of a once-great distillery, the rescue of Campbeltown’s century’s-old heritage, and the production of a delicious new label. And that’s the way the team at Kilkerran likes it. Rather than plaster its branding all over the web and hire a few brand ambassadors to conquer the world, Kilkerran is more than happy to quietly produce one of Scotch whisky’s few remaining secrets.

Unassuming, hidden in plain sight, it’s been right there in front of you the entire time. You probably just didn’t know it.

-David Driscoll

Secrets of the San Fernando Valley: Mariscos Corona

Screen Shot 2019-07-17 at 9.42.34 AM.png

Los Angeles is a paradise of incredible Mexican food. So much so, that it’s all I think about every single day, from the instant I wake up to the moment I finish dinner: what am I going to try today? Since moving here, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the quality, the variety, and the regional diversity of cuisines represented. There’s so much going on just between East LA and Pasadena, but especially here in the San Fernando Valley—a hotbed of fantastic Mexican restaurants that exist almost completely off the radar. If you live in LA, but never venture north of Hollywood, the goal of these forthcoming blogs is to nudge you outside your comfort zone (and into a hot plate of food). If you’re reading this from outside LA, start putting these spots on your to-do list next time you visit. As a Mexican food junkie, I can tell you in all seriousness: I’ve never eaten this well on a daily basis.

I remember the heady years of the early millennium—circa 2002—when my co-workers and I would finish our lunch shift waiting tables at Pier 39 in San Francisco and head over to the Mission for late-afternoon tacos and beer. We would bounce around all the dive bars, taking shots until late in the evening, before finishing the night with a burrito from Pancho Villa or one of the twenty other incredible taquerías in the neighborhood.

By the time I left San Francisco at the end of 2018, things in the Mission had changed, just like they had everywhere else in the Bay. The hole-in-the-wall restaurants had been replaced by upscale, New American eateries. The dive bars had been replaced by $15 cocktail lounges with Instagram-friendly interiors. The Mission was trendier and more popular than ever, but the soul was somehow gone.

That’s all I’ll say about that.

The unassuming interior of Mariscos Corona on Sherman Way in Van Nuys

The unassuming interior of Mariscos Corona on Sherman Way in Van Nuys

Having purchased a home in Sherman Oaks at the beginning of 2019, my wife and I were ready for a new start. I had spent some time in the San Fernando Valley in the late nineties, but it had been more than twenty years since I had driven its many streets and examined its plentiful offerings. After seven months of doing reconnaissance, I can say one thing with certainty: every day feels like a time machine back to the Mission of 2002. It’s all here. The hole-in-the-wall hotspots, the longstanding dives, the colorful characters, and the chaos that comes with them. In between it all are the everyday folks, working for a living and just trying to get by. It’s nostalgic. It feels like a dream—like a distant memory coming back to life.

The lifeblood of our existence—community establishments I thought had vanished from California long ago—continues to exist in this gigantic melting pot of humanity. Next-door to an urban landscape that’s been gentrified to hell, transformed by modern desires, and sold to young professionals on the hunt for their next social media adventure, the San Fernando Valley ignores all of that noise and continues to operate in near anonymity to many in Los Angeles. It’s 260 square miles of strip mall madness, an endless sea of small businesses either bucking the trends in the age of tech, or adapting them to their own small ambitions. It’s almost like the internet doesn’t exist in some places.

It’s also packed with 1.8 million people, making it about the size of San Francisco and San Jose put together. That means if you moved the city limit south of 101, LA would lose over 30% of its population. There’s a lot going on here—many, many secrets, especially if you like Mexican food as much as I do. Over 40% of the San Fernando Valley is latino and the further north you drive from Ventura Boulevard, the more you can feel that influence. Heading up Van Nuys Boulevard to go shopping, or pick up food from the endless array of Mexican markets and restaurants, is both inspiring and overwhelming. If you were to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a new one each time, it would take you years to try all of them (and you have to try them all, right?). What better time to start than now?

Let’s talk about Mariscos Corona in Van Nuys, your first destination.

Spicy Camarones a la Diabla (shrimp in the devil’s sauce) with tomatillo

Spicy Camarones a la Diabla (shrimp in the devil’s sauce) with tomatillo

I’ve dined at Mariscos Corona once, and twice ordered takeout. All three times I’ve eaten variations of the same thing: shrimp. Shrimp cocktail, shrimp tacos, spicy shrimp—you’ve seen Forrest Gump, so you know how it goes.

Mariscos means seafood in Spanish, so I’ve stayed the course and kept to the sea. Once you’ve tried the spicy Camarones a la Diabla, it’s hard to imagine ordering anything else, even with a full menu of traditional Mexican options at hand. The first time we went, I ordered them extra spicy, but Elisabeth—the attentive and friendly hostess—took one look at me and shut down that request. Thank God she did, because even the medium spice level here packs a punch. Cooked in a fiery tomatillo sauce, both tangy and savory, you’ll be shoveling as much of that salsa as you can on to whatever’s left standing after the shrimp are long gone—your tortillas, your beans, your rice, anything. That’s how good it is.

Antonio—or Tony, as he goes by—has been manning the kitchen and running the show at Mariscos Corona for twenty years and I’d heavily advise checking out his fantastic Instagram rather than relying on my simple photos. But just to give you a better idea of what’s happening there, I’m going to steal one of them and post it below because it’s the other must-try item:

IMG_E1DB144427C1-1.jpeg

There are many, many Mexican restaurants that make a variation of a shrimp cocktail, but what makes this one particularly special is the size, the freshness, the flavor, and the price. The first time we ate at Mariscos Corona, my wife and I sat looking at each other dumbfounded. The heaps of avocado were perfectly ripe—neither too hard, nor too mushy. The shrimp was clean and juicy. The salsa was so delicious we almost drank it out of the cup. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

One thing to note is that there’s no alcohol license, so you’ll need to order to-go if you want to enjoy a beer or a Margarita with your meal. Talking with the staff is half the fun though, so I purposely don’t call in advance and order right there in the restaurant, which gives me fifteen minutes to shoot the breeze with Tony and Elisabeth. Food always tastes better when the people who make it are humble and friendly, with or without the booze.

But for Tuesday night takeout, it’s hard to imagine doing much better than a plate of spicy shrimp and an ice cold Modelo.

-David Driscoll

Sorry — Part II

IMG_2795.jpg

I was enjoying the perspective of this past weekend’s New York Times op-ed on influencers, when I came upon this comment (posted above) in the feedback section.

Bingo.

Thank goodness other people see this glaring problem. To use an example from the article:

Four years ago, when Ms. Alzate first came to VidCon, she was a marketing student with fewer than 7,000 subscribers. She decided to study her favorite YouTubers, watch how they made their videos and then test videos in multiple genres, seeing which ones performed best on her channel.

Eventually, she hit on formats — like beauty tips and lifehacks — that reliably performed well, and she was off to the races. Today, she is a full-time YouTuber with a small staff, a production studio and the kind of fame she once coveted.

And this is supposed to be a good thing?!

To the point of NYT reader Jai from Newton, MA (and my own from a week ago): if everyone is following these influencers, simply to study their patterns so that they too can be influencers, where do the sales happen? If consumers aren’t buying as a result of their efforts, it’s not influencing. It’s just a popularity pyramid scheme.

You can definitely make the case (and the author does) that there are serious business skills one can learn by setting up his or her own influencer account. Companies study other companies all the time, and the most successful often steal or buy what they can’t create on their own. But the fact that these kids are mimicking the actions of others for the sole purpose of gaining popularity and fame, that’s another story. When I was a kid we didn’t call these people influencers. We called them posers.

And we went out of our way to avoid them, not follow their lead.

-David Driscoll

Kosher Spirits

An Etrog, a silver Etrog box, and Lulav; all used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot

An Etrog, a silver Etrog box, and Lulav; all used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot

“Do you know what a Sukkah is?” Howard Witkin asked me, as we sat in a booth at Pico Kosher Deli this past week, getting ready to order our food. I shook my head no.

“Its basically an open air pavilion you build in your backyard for the holiday of Sukkot,” he continued; “Mine’s like a big bamboo screen cabana, with a roof of palm fronds draped in zillions of twinkly lights and paper lanterns.” You invite over all of our friends to eat and drink and celebrate—like having Thanksgiving dinner every night for a week. You drink, play games, sing, talk and just put aside all of your worries and chill with friends,” he explained between bites of pastrami.

“Do you know what Sukkot is?” he then asked. I shook my head again. There’s a lot that I don’t know about Jewish holidays and traditions, but I was eager to learn. One thing I did know: the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur I had been sipping on for the last few minutes was absolutely delicious; the essence of pure citrus with bits of passion fruit and some of the most divine aromatics I’ve ever smelled in a glass. “Do you know what an Etrog is?” Howard then asked. I shook my head no for a third time. “It is the original, oldest, most ‘heirloom’ citrus fruit. It’s the most perfect fruit in the world. It has the smell of the Garden of Eden.” 

So that’s why the aromas were heavenly! “During Sukkot, you’ll see Etrogs for sale around here at sixty to a hundred bucks a piece,” Howard continued; “Because they have to be perfect.” The perfect size, the perfect shape, no bruises or blemishes.

Why so picky? Because throughout the week of Sukkot, when everyone is together, eating and drinking in the Sukkah, a blessing is recited over a Lulav and an Etrog. According to Wikipedia, Rabbinic Judaism believes the biblical phrase peri eitz hadar (פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר) from Leviticus 23:40 refers to the Etrog: 

On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.

Grammatically, the Hebrew phrase is ambiguous; it is typically translated as "fruit of a beautiful tree," but it can also be read as "a beautiful fruit of a tree.” For that reason, Etrogs are carefully selected for the performance of the Sukkot holiday rituals.

etrog-liqueur-production.jpg

“But there’s no way you’re paying sixty to a hundred bucks per Etrog to make this liqueur,” I said, soaking up every bit of previously-unknown information about Jewish history and tradition, and waiting for Howard to explain further.

“No,” he answered matter of factly; “because you have to do something with all the imperfect Etrogs.” 

“When God gives you imperfect Etrogs, you make Etrog liqueur?” I asked with a smile. 

Something like that.

Howard and his wife Marni Witkin started the Sukkah Hill Spirits company (“When we built our house, we thought of it as a Sukkah on the hill,” he told me) after his wife Marni, an avid baker, began experimenting with her own infusions at home. The idea of an Etrog liqueur seemed like a fun idea for holiday celebrations with friends and neighbors, so Marni began working with sugar cane spirit and all natural ingredients to make her elixir, one that was both delicious and Kosher. They managed to find an orchard in California with Etrog trees, grown entirely from seed—not grafted—and tended by hand without pesticides or machines, which made for a fragrant and flavorful citrus. It wasn’t until a friend from the grocery business came by and tasted it (and utterly freaked out) that the idea of actually selling the Etrog liqueur became feasible. 

I have no doubt in my mind that the above story happened exactly as Howard stated it because that’s pretty much how I reacted. Imagine a clean and balanced limoncello, but without the coloring or cloying sweetness. Now add in just a touch of tropical lushness on the mid-palate, with a zingy, zesty finish that lingers on the back of your mouth for a full five minutes. Don’t like sipping liqueurs? Make a Margarita with it. Make a Sidecar. Make your favorite citrus-based cocktail at home, then sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s that good.

And then there’s the Besamim.

Howard and Marni Witkin with their two kosher liqueurs

Howard and Marni Witkin with their two kosher liqueurs

As I sat there, gorging myself on thin-cut pastrami and rye bread, Howard enlightened me as to the Jewish ceremony of Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat and involves lighting a Havdalah candle while blessing a cup of wine and sweet smelling spices. Those spices are called besamim in Hebrew, and they’re the basis of the Sukkah Hill Besamim liqueur. According to a few sources online, the sages instituted the “smelling of fragrant spices (besamim) in order to comfort the soul,” which is saddened by the departure of the “extra soul” that it received on Shabbat. What is the extra soul?

On a basic level, this refers to the fact that on Shabbat a person is more disposed toward relaxation, joy, and celebrating the holy day with extra food and drink. 

What better way to relax on Shabbat with a bottle of Besamim? Particularly in a Bourbon cocktail with ice. Brimming with clove, cinnamon, and other baking spices on the nose, imagine something between an Italian amaro and an herbal German liqueur, sweet and pungent on the palate with a savory and spicy finish. While the classical heritage of amaro and other localized European aperitifs has played a huge role in the popularity of those spirits, it’s also quite interesting to think about the millennia of Jewish tradition being infused into the Sukkah Hill liqueurs by Howard and Marni.  

The spirits world has promoted history and tradition as a marketing tool for the last decade, using authenticity as a draw for consumers who want to follow protocol. For example, the bold flavor of Fernet Branca has made it one of the most popular liqueurs on the market. The fact that it’s made from a secret Italian recipe that dates back to 1845 makes it even more interesting to curious consumers who want to get in on that heritage. On that same note, the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur is one of the best citrus liqueurs I’ve ever tasted. The fact that it’s Kosher, and made with a special fruit that may date back to the Garden of Eden makes it just as compelling as traditional Fernet, in my opinion.

Granted, the heritage of the spirits themselves may not be thousands of years old, but the culture they represent and the history behind its traditions most certainly are. Although the flavors and aromas in the bottle arise from the Witkin’s family traditions, their Etrog and Besamim liqueurs are attracting more attention from mixologists and social media than from the Kosher world. 

Simply put, you can enjoy either of them far beyond the holiday season, outside of the celebrations from which they draw their inspiration.

-David Driscoll

The Golden Circle

goldencircle.jpg

I texted my old boss a photo of the above graphic last week and added: “I’m willing to bet my life savings that whichever retailer can plug this into an easy-to-understand e-marketing format can unseat the 100 point system and create the new model for quick evaluation. I don’t have anywhere to try it out, however, so I’m passing it along to you.”

It’s the Golden Circle: start with why, then work your way out to what, rather than the other way around.

During the ten months I spent doing tech marketing in Silicon Valley, I became intimately familiar with the philosophy of Simon Sinek and his motivational “Start With Why” approach to business. In order to be an effective visionary, one must first inspire. People who only motivate by profit are never as successful, which is why great motivational CEOs start by telling you what they believe in. Sinek believes too many companies start by talking about WHAT they sell, rather than why they sell it in the first place. "People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it," he repeats in his famous Ted Talk. Therefore, you should start any presentation with your reason for being—WHY—then move into HOW you do it, and then finally WHAT it is you’ve done.

For many years I unconsciously utilized a similar strategy while working wine and spirits retail, formulating passionate mission statements about our products that more or less followed Sinek’s outlook. They generally started with why we believed in a product’s quality, and how it was that we came upon it. Only at the very end did I touch on what the product actually tasted like. Therefore, I found a kinship with Sinek’s mantra: WHY is the reason to buy, and WHAT is the tangible proof that we believe. WHAT is the result of our belief, not the reason for it.

The problem with that strategy today, however, is that we're all spending far too much time in the booze industry focusing on WHY and HOW, without enough consideration for WHAT. On top of that, it’s often the same WHY and HOW over and over and over again:

We believe in artisanal, small batch, handcrafted blah blah blah that speaks to the terroir of our region and the tradition of our forefathers because we respect the heritage and the time-honored practices of doing things the right way.

Something like that, right? It's everywhere. It's everyone's raison d'être all of a sudden, from the organic restaurant down the street to the latest craft gin distillery to hit the market. It needs a little tweaking, hence my text message to my old boss. Whomever can effectively tweak their WHYs to cut through all the other bullshit WHYs will dominate in 2020. That’s what I believe, at least.

There are two glaring problems with the current craft spirit approach when it comes to the Golden Circle:

1) Everyone is saying the exact same thing, so no one stands out.

2) The quality of the product itself often doesn’t match the expectation.

The wine and spirits industry has become so good at selling WHY at this point that WHAT has become almost irrelevant. It’s a veritable sea of inspirational doctrine and ideology without much payoff in the glass—and that’s where the story falls short (plus, it's been manipulated to no end). A great comedian will suck you into a long, drawn-out routine and have the audience in stitches when he finally gets to the punchline, just like an effective mystery engulfs the reader right up to the big reveal. Marketing is no different. If you build up consumer expectations and fail to deliver on the actual product, that’s called a flop.

I’d like to see someone flip the script for a change and start by putting their WHAT into my glass, allowing me to ask them WHY if I still cared to know. That would be refreshing. Start by wowing consumers your with supreme flavor for a great price. Then talk about HOW it was made. Then, if anyone still cares at that point, the reason for making it. We’ve got more than enough passion to go around at this point. What we don’t have enough of are exciting new products for reasonable prices.

We don’t need more of the same WHYs. We need more WHAT. Now HOW is that going to happen?

-David Driscoll

Sorry, Booze Professionals; It's No Longer About You

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

CVT Soft Serve owner Joe Nicchi isn’t the only person who’s over the era of influencers. Wine and spirits customers are as well.

For nearly the last two decades, the renaissance surrounding boutique alcohol has been led by professional tasters, influential writers, and outspoken personalities, looking to guide beginning and unsure consumers towards quality and taste and make a career out of doing so. Today, however, with so much information available online, an endless amount of new books on the subject, and social media content overflowing with thought and opinions, consumers are pretty well-versed, and rarely do they fret over making the wrong decision like many anxious customers once did. Today’s drinker is more headstrong, looking to exert his or her own experience into the equation. There’s a reason business leaders are calling this emerging consumer group the “hero generation.” Rather than defer to the “qualified expert” at this point, these drinkers are ready to write their own story, one in which they’re at the center.

For over a decade, I crafted retail marketing that focused on presenting a different level of expertise to our customers as part of a large California chain. We were more than just a booze shop. We were on the road, searching out new producers, traveling overseas to find the best possible wines and spirits. That was the differentiating factor between us and every other wine store. I spent years making sure consumers knew how dedicated we were to our craft by documenting those adventures, hoping that our experience would improve our credibility.

In the year 2019, however; this strategy is moot. Dead. Gone. Bye bye. It’s no longer about us. Customers don’t want to live vicariously through our experiences. They want to experience the adventure first hand. More importantly, consumers in 2019 don’t want to know what you drank over the weekend. They’re more concerned with what they are going to drink over the weekend and how you can best deliver it to them. If you think you’re influencing customers by humbly bragging about all the good stuff you consumed with last night’s dinner, check the likes on your Instagram page. That shit isn’t working. Consumers are too busy posting their own bottle shots to worry about yours. In today’s market, your job is to make them look good, not the other way around.

That’s not to say established influencers have completely lost their influence, mind you. Like an iconic rock band with a core base of fans, there will always be a certain amount of loyalty towards familiarity. It’s just to say that, moving forward, it’s going to be very difficult to cut through all the noise out there. When everyone considers themselves an influencer—posting photos, opinions, likes, and reviews online incessantly—it lessens the impact of any singular voice.

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 2.03.02 PM.png

To better understand the psychology behind this phenomenon, look at the backlash on Instagram against users who follow personal accounts without ever interacting, i.e. refusing to like or comment on photos, despite the fact they’re closely observing every post.

Why would someone follow you, look at all your stories, and keep tabs on everything that’s happening in your life without liking one of your photos? Because the people on social media who consider themselves influencers want to be doing the influencing! They certainly don’t want to give off the vibe that they too can be influenced. At the same time, they can’t exist in a vacuum, as an influencer without any followers, so they have to make nice for a short period of time. As soon as they establish themselves, the “social” relationship becomes one-sided, not unlike a teacher who considers himself above the student.

However, when everyone considers themselves the influencer and not the influencee—the teacher and not the student—it creates a wall of content creation without results. It’s all push, no pull. It leads to thousands—if not millions—of people who think they’re increasing awareness, when in reality they’re increasing the level of resentment against their “brand.” It’s like talking without ever listening.

Look at Joe Nicchi, who has been inundated by requests for free products, both online and face-to-face at his ice cream truck, by “influencers” asking him if they can have one of his $4 ice cream cones for free in exchange for a post or a tag.

"I'd stare at them like 'Are you out of your mind?' Nicchi said. "It's all the time, all the time. They love using the word exposure, they use it all the time."

They also love to use the words “I” and “me.” I ate this. I drank that. I was here. I went there. But in order to win over today’s consumer—to influence them without them knowing they’ve been influenced—you’re going to have to stop using first person pronouns and switch over to the second. You can eat this. You can drink that. You can be here. You can go there.

In short, you can be the hero.

But, of course, to convince a certain number of wine and spirits professionals to stop talking about their own exploits is to take away from them the whole reason they joined the industry in the first place. If they’re not doing the influencing, they’re not the hero of their own wine and spirits journey.

-David Driscoll